Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dostoyevsky's Kantian 'Proof' of God

Immanuel Kant
'the immortal Kant'
(Image from Wikipedia)

Some readers may recall that I recently re-read Mikhail Bulgakov's magnum opus, The Master and Margarita. If so, those readers will surely recall the passage that I cited on Kant. Berlioz and Bezdomny had been speaking of Christ just before the novel's opening scene, when they were suddenly joined by the devil, i.e., Woland, who was extraordinarily interested in their atheism:
"But, may I ask," resumed the guest from abroad after a moment's troubled reflection, "what do you make of the proofs of God's existence, of which, as you know, there are five?"

"Alas!" answered Berlioz regretfully, "all of those proofs are worthless, and mankind has long since consigned them to oblivion. Surely you would agree that reason dictates that there can be no proof of God's existence."

"Bravo!" exclaimed the foreigner, "Bravo! You've said just what that restless old sage Immanuel said about this very same subject. But here's the rub: he completely demolished all five proofs, and then, in a seeming display of self-mockery, he constructed a sixth proof all his own!"

"Kant's proof," retorted the educated editor with a faint smile, "is also unconvincing. No wonder Schiller said that only slaves could be satisfied with Kant's arguments on this subject, while Strauss simply laughed at his proof." (Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, pages 7-8)
Kant's proof, proposed in his Critique of Practical Reason, held that even though one cannot demonstrate the existence of God as an idea of pure reason, the idea of God is inextricably bound up with the link between happiness and morality, for only God can guarantee immortality as reward for moral virtue. Therefore, absolute morality, the gift of immortality, and the existence of God are all essential postulates of practical reason even though they cannot be grounded in pure reason. Or something like that.

Bulgakov may have been reflecting not only upon a passage in Kant but also upon a scene in The Brothers Karamazov, for in an early passage in the novel, Dostoyevsky -- or, at least, his omniscient albeit mortal narrator -- has Pyotr Alexandrovitch MiĆ¼sov recount something that Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov had said a few days earlier:
"I will tell you instead, gentlemen, another interesting and rather characteristic anecdote of Ivan Fyodorovitch himself. Only five days ago, in a gathering here, principally of ladies, he solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbours. That there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan Fyodorovitch added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. That's not all. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognised as the inevitable, the most rational, even honourable outcome of his position. From this paradox, gentlemen, you can judge of the rest of our eccentric and paradoxical friend Ivan Fyodorovitch's theories." (Dostoyevsky, The Brother's Karamazov (New York: Random House, 1950), translated by Constance Garnett, page 78)
Obviously, Ivan -- and therefore Dostoyevsky -- had in mind Kant's sixth proof of God's existence, the moral argument in which God is a postulate of practical reason necessary for guaranteeing the ground of morality, namely immortality. Thus does Ivan hold that "whole natural law [of love for others] lies in . . . the belief in immortality," without which, "nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful."

Dostoyevsky may also have been alluding to the legendary founder of the mysterious but ruthless Assassians, Hasan-i-Sabah, a rather unorthodox Muslim who reputedly stated, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted," perhaps based on an extreme interpretation of Surah 3:54 (cf. 8:30) in the Qur'an, which according to some translations states that "Allah is the best of deceivers" ("Allahu khayru al-makireena," the lexical form of makireena, i.e., makara, having as one of its meanings "to practice deceit" [cf. Miim-Kaf-Ra; also Edward William Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon (pdf)]).

But God knows best . . . even if He isn't telling.

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14 Comments:

At 5:46 AM, Blogger Charles said...

good point

 
At 6:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks . . . I think.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:41 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Too bad the internet had not been around shortly after I had read "The Brothers Karamazov," I might have a better understanding of your post. I only remember Alyosha's reaction to Father Zossima's death and a few vague notion of events.

 
At 7:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I didn't recall much from the book either, so I'm really enjoying re-reading it . . . and since my copy is nearly 1000 pages long, I might be blogging on it rather a lot over the next few weeks or so.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:43 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

"...the idea of God is inextricably bound up with the link between happiness and morality, for only God can guarantee immortality as reward for moral virtue. Therefore, absolute morality, the gift of immortality, and the existence of God are all essential postulates of practical reason even though they cannot be grounded in pure reason. Or something like that."

This passage explains why humans need to believe in God. Though humans believe in God, that does not prove one exists. No one knows what happens after death, so if one lives according to a belief in divine rewards and punishments, then it is the belief itself, not the actual existence of God, that has guided human morality.

"He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognised as the inevitable, the most rational, even honourable outcome of his position. "

I don't get this part. No individual is an island. Survival depends on cooperation and a certain level of trust. That is why laws are rational in secular societies.

 
At 8:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I'm no expert on Kant, but I think that he called belief in God and in immortality "postulates of practical reason." I'm not sure that he considered them proofs, certainly not in terms of pure reason. From the little that I know, Kant seems to have believed that a system of rewards and punishment for virtue and vice, respectively, were necessary for the moral life and that, therefore, these two postulates can be shown by practical reason to be existentially necessary conclusions since in this life, virtue often goes unrewarded and vice unpunished.

Sartre might point out that this merely means that life is absurd, not that we are immortal or that God exists.

As for Ivan Karamazov's reasoning . . . it's rather obscure to me as well. I could understand if he were merely to conclude that moral values are ungrounded, but that "crime" would be more "honorable" than living according to the "moral law" strikes me as appealing to a hierarchy of values that Ivan in fact denies, albeit couched in terms of "honor."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:01 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jeffery. I'm okay with people believing or disbelieving in the existence of a sentient deity but remain skeptical of any attempt to prove one belief or the other either through tangible evidence or a logical thought process. A true agnostic can actually believe or disbelieve as long as he or she acknowledges that belief is just that, faith and not fact. I'm also skeptical of any attempt to link morality with religiosity since secular societies are full of examples of real people who are either agnostic or atheist yet live with self-respect and respect for other living and non-living things. Likewise, there are examples of people who do not adhere to the teachings of their faith or who misuse or misinterpret the teachings of their faith to cause harm to others.

 
At 11:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

People are usually ethical or unethical based on how they were raised, I suppose, and this as often as not has little to do with religion.

I think that the issue remains of how values are to be grounded, whether one believes in God or not. Even if one believes in God as a ground of values, the question still to be asked is what sort of God one believes in.

Christians and Muslims both believe in 'God' . . . but the Christian God and the Muslim God seem to demand some rather different ethical values (along with a lot of overlap).

The issue gets rather complicated, but my opinion is that the grounding of values requires a transcendent source.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far the excerpt from Brothers Karamazov, remember that although Ivan said a lot of things along the lines of how without religion man would be a completely immoral and evil creature, in the long run he never lived according to those principles. He was a moral character from start to end so if anything, Dostoevsky was using Ivan to say that even an atheist can be moral, without any promises of heaven or immortality.

 
At 5:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe, but since Ivan suffers "brain fever," perhaps Dostoyevsky wants to say that trying to live a moral life without being able to ground one's morals in God can drive one insane.

Also, Smerdyakov didn't turn out too well, and he is the one in the novel who takes Ivan's views on morality without God seriously.

Granted, though, Smerdyakov wasn't ever very moral in the first place.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I guess Smerdyakov is an example of what happens when a person of below average intelligence (and an above average sized ego) comes across some 'dangerous' ideas. As far as the brain fever, I think there are more reasons for it. His father dies, possibly killed by his brother, his situation with Ekaterina, and then Smerdyakov comes out and assumes blame for the crime and blames Ivan's ideas for it. Say what you want about Smerdyakov but he knew how to get back at a man.

So I guess you could say his views
were indirectly responsible for his madness.. it wasn't that he couldn't live with them, it was that he saw them used in someone else's hands, against his own father of all people.

 
At 5:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for visiting again.

Now that I reflect on the novel . . . is Ivan actually an atheist? He once or twice affirms atheism, but in his long talk with Alyosha, he acknowledges a belief in God but a rejection of God's world because of all its evil.

My copy of the novel has Ivan saying: "It's not that I don't accept God, you must understand, it's the world created by Him I don't and cannot accept."

I don't know Russian, unfortunately, but I wonder if the words translated as "atheist" and "atheism" have a somewhat different connotation in Russian.

By the way, is Smerdyakov below average intelligence? He was considered a fool by everyone, but Ivan came to think differently about him, didn't he?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Jeffrey: to acknowledge only a transcendent force as the basis for morality? - humanists certainly would disagree...

 
At 3:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, that's "source," not "force," and the name is "Jeffery," not "Jeffrey."

The basic problem with a nontranscendent attempt at grounding morality lies in moving from "is" to "ought."

I've not yet seen a successful attempt.

Jeffery Hodges

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